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You’re doing what?

Q: TV and movie characters are turning the question on its head. “Why is the sky blue?” is now “The sky is blue, why?” My theory is that this linguistic atrocity began with Friends. Your thoughts?

A: The usual way to ask a question in English is to put the wh- word (“why,” “what,” “when,” “where,” etc.) or another interrogative at the beginning: “Why is the sky blue?”

However, the interrogative is sometimes put at or near the end of a sentence or clause to express surprise, ask for clarification, quiz someone, or refer to more than one interrogative. Here are examples:

(1) “You said what?” (2) “They’re coming from exactly where?” (3) “The first quarto of Hamlet was published when?” (4) “Who did what to whom?” All of these uses are standard English.

The words “what” in #1 and #4 and “whom” in #4 are interrogative pronouns that function as objects, while “where” in #2 and “when” in #3 are interrogative adverbs that modify verbs.

Linguists describe the use of an interrogative before a verb (the usual position of a subject in a declarative sentence) as “wh– fronting,” and one after a verb (the usual position of an object or adverb) as “wh– in situ.”

Here’s an example of a declarative sentence that answers the fronted and in-situ questions that follow:

“I [subject] am writing [verb] a short story [object].”

“What [object] are you writing?” (Here, “what” is fronted.) … “You’re writing what [object]?” (Here, “what” is in situ.)

Interrogatives that express surprise or ask for clarification often echo earlier statements. Here are examples:

“I’ll treat you” … “You’ll do what?”

“I just met her” … “You met her where?”

Although wh– interrogatives are usually fronted in English, they’re in situ in some other languages, like Chinese and Japanese. (Linguists use wh– to mean an interrogative even in referring to languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet.)

Getting back to your question, it’s possible that what you hear as “The sky is blue, why?” is actually a declarative sentence followed by a one-word interrogative sentence: “The sky is blue. Why?”

That’s standard English. It’s a more emphatic though less common way of saying, “Why is the sky blue?”

It’s also possible that the use of wh– in situ (putting the wh– word after the verb and at the end of a sentence) may be more common now, especially in movies and on television, where dialogue predominates.

We’ve found quite a few examples in searching the scripts of recent movies. Most of the ones we’ve seen express surprise or ask for clarification.

Here are a few from film scripts that studios posted for 2023 Oscar contenders:

The Banshees of Inisherin. Padraic: “I knocked on ColmSonnyLarry and he’s just sitting there.” Siobhan: “Sitting there doing what?”

Master. Gail (to Jasmine): “So you go back home and then what? Transfer to another college hoping it’ll somehow be different?”

The Fabelmans. Burt: “You already won, Mitts. I surrendered. I’m not taking the bait.” Mitzi: “Who’s baiting who? I said I’d take him for his polio shot the first five times you asked me. Didn’t I?”

Finally, use of interrogatives at the end of a sentence didn’t begin with Friends, the TV sitcom that ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004. It dates back at least to the 19th century and perhaps a lot earlier.

We’ll end with a 19th-century example from Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers (1857)Septimus Harding is speaking here to his widowed daughter Eleanor about Obadiah Slope’s unwanted proposal:

“ ‘But you’ll tell the archdeacon?’ asked Mr. Harding.

“ ‘Tell him what?’ said she sharply.”

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